Edmund Husserl (1859-1938 )

Edmund Husserl was a German philosopher and founder of phenomenology. Husserl was born in Prossnitz, Moravia (now in the Czech Republic), on April 8, 1859. He studied science, philosophy, and mathematics at the universities of Leipzig, Berlin, and Vienna and wrote his doctoral thesis on the calculus of variations. The main influence on Husserl's thought was the intentional psychology of Franz Brentano, under whom he studied in Vienna.

He became interested in the psychological basis of mathematics and, shortly after becoming a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Halle, wrote his first book, Philosophie der Arithmetik (1891). At that time he maintained that the truths of mathematics have validity regardless of the way people come to discover and believe in them.

Husserl then argued against his early position, which he called psychologism, in Logical Investigations (1900-01; trans. 1970). In this book he contended that the philosopher’s task is to contemplate the essences of things, and that the essence of an object can be arrived at by systematically varying that object in the imagination. Husserl noted that consciousness is always directed toward something. He called this directedness intentionality and argued that consciousness contains ideal, unchanging structures called meanings, which determine what object the mind is directed toward at any given time.

During his tenure (1901-16) at the University of G?ttingen, Husserl attracted many students, who began to form a distinct phenomenological school, and he wrote his most influential work, Ideas: A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology (1913; trans. 1931). In this book Husserl introduced the term phenomenological reduction for his method of reflection on the meanings the mind employs when it contemplates an object. Because this method concentrates on meanings that are in the mind, whether or not the object present to consciousness actually exists, Husserl said the method involves “bracketing existence,” that is, setting aside the question of the real existence of the contemplated object. He proceeded to give detailed analyses of the mental structures involved in perceiving particular types of objects, describing in detail, for instance, his perception of the apple tree in his garden. Thus, although phenomenology does not assume the existence of anything, it is nonetheless a descriptive discipline; according to Husserl, phenomenology is devoted, not to inventing theories, but rather to describing the “things themselves,” which is not unlike the philosophy of Kant, an affinity of which Husserl himself was fully conscious.

After 1916 Husserl taught at the University of Freiburg. Phenomenology had been criticized as an essentially solipsistic method, confining the philosopher to the contemplation of private meanings, so in Cartesian Meditations (1931; trans. 1960), Husserl attempted to show how the individual consciousness can be directed toward other minds, society, and history. Husserl died in Freiburg on April 26, 1938.

Husserl’s description of the consciousness of time presented in The Phenomenology of Inner Time-Consciousness (1928; Eng. trans., 1964), the revisions of his logical theory in Formal and Transcendental Logic (1929; Eng. trans., 1969), and his later emphasis on the basic nature of humans’ lived relationship with the world (Lebenswelt) in Experience and Judgment (1939; Eng. trans., 1973) have influenced philosophers in many different fields, the greatest perhaps on a younger colleague at Freiburg, Martin Heidegger. Husserl’s relatively cognitive phenomenological method was transformed by Heidegger into an existentialism that dealt with the emotional and ethical significances of life as well as its perceptual, intellectual, and logical structures. Phenomenology remains one of the most vigorous tendencies in contemporary philosophy, and its impact has also been felt in theology, linguistics, psychology, and the social sciences.